Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

What are we, lepers?

Posted in Pharyngula by Skepdude on October 10, 2008

Elizabeth Dole is continuing her campaign in North Carolina of smearing her opponent, Kay Hagan, for simply associating with atheists. We atheists are the “most vile, radical liberals in America,” out to wage war on Christmas and stock boy scout troops with homosexuals, and we actively support political candidates who are atheists. I know … how dare we.


In Defense of Dignity

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on October 10, 2008

People must accept death at “the hour chosen by God,” according to Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the Catholic Church, which is pouring money into the campaign against I-1000.

The hour chosen by God? What does that even mean? Without the intervention of man—and medical science—my mother would have died years earlier. And at the end, even without assisted suicide as an option, my mother had to make her choices. Two hours with the mask off? Six with the mask on? Another two days hooked up to machines? Once things were hopeless, she chose the quickest, if not the easiest, exit. Mask off, two hours. That was my mother’s choice, not God’s.

Did my mother commit suicide? I wonder what the pope might say.

I know what my mother would say: The same church leaders who can’t manage to keep priests from raping children aren’t entitled to micromanage the final moments of our lives.

If religious people believe assisted suicide is wrong, they have a right to say so. Same for gay marriage and abortion. They oppose them for religious reasons, but it’s somehow not enough for them to deny those things to themselves. They have to rush into your intimate life and deny them to you, too—deny you control over your own reproductive organs, deny you the spouse of your choosing, condemn you to pain (or the terror of it) at the end of your life.

The proper response to religious opposition to choice or love or death can be reduced to a series of bumper stickers: Don’t approve of abortion? Don’t have one. Don’t approve of gay marriage? Don’t have one. Don’t approve of physician-assisted suicide? For Christ’s sake, don’t have one. But don’t tell me I can’t have one—each one—because it offends your God.

Fuck your God.


Skeptics Sellout to Christians

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on October 10, 2008

I spent the weekend at CalTech to attend a Skeptics Society conference. This particular event was titled “Origins: the Big Questions,” addressing whether science renders divine faith obsolete. The speakers who drew me there were quantum physicist Leonard Susskind, entertainer Keith Dalton (creator and star of the hilarious and irreverent online series Mr. Deity), and of course Michael Shermer, who founded the society and edits the great Skeptic Magazine.

The Good Part moz-screenshot-15.jpg

The conference began with a real bang – the Big one of course, and a lesson on what preceded that singularity as best understood today by physicists. Susskind condensed his Stanford undergraduate cosmology course into a beautiful one-hour primer on the universal constants (Planck’s, gravitational constant, speed of light…) that support life. It turns out that life can only evolve and survive in a narrow window of values for these constants, a fact that Christians have recently embraced as proof of an intelligent designer. But Susskind explained how quantum mechanics support the existence of a multiverse that regularly spawns new universes with different sets of constants, making it inevitable that our comfy universe should appear. (I asked him whether a future day Dr. Strangelove could create the conditions that spawn a new universe in our own – he said no, but without a compelling explanation.)


The cultural evolution of religion

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 10, 2008


As promised in my previous post, I would like to bring to people’s attention one of the best reviews of scientific investigations of religion as a social phenomenon, a paper published in Science (3 October 2008) by Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff of the University of British Columbia. The article is chockfull of fascinating, empirically based, insights into the relationship between religion and prosocial behavior, and is a must read for anyone seriously interested in this topic. Here, I will point to some of the highlights that will hopefully stimulate discussion and direct reading of Norenzayan and Shariff’s paper.

First off, let me clear the field of an obvious source of what I think is rather fruitless discussion. The authors begin by summarizing three models of the evolution of religion: the evolutionary group selection scenario (religion as an adaptation for group living), the cultural by-product scenario (religion derives from the necessity of a theory of others’ mind and sensitivity to one’s reputation), and the cultural group selection scenario (where competition among social groups favors the spread of costly practices to maintain in-group cohesion). I have said repeatedly that we simply do not have the empirical data to seriously test genetic-evolutionary explanations for most human behaviors, so I am completely neutral about alternative scenarios that deal with that aspect of the problem. Moreover, following Jablonka and Lamb (2005), I count cultural inheritance as a legitimate form of evolutionarily relevant inheritance. This means that any of the above scenarios (or a combination thereof) may have occurred without major involvement of genes, by direct transmission of cultural practices.

Ok, that being out of the way, let’s take a look at what Norenzayan and Shariff say. To begin with, they debunk the oft-repeated claim that religiosity increases charitability. It turns out studies that have made that link are entirely based on self-reporting, a notoriously unreliable source of behavioral evidence. When one looks into experimental studies of the issue, the picture changes dramatically. A series of “Good Samaritan” studies found that people’s actual (as opposed to self-reported) charitable behavior shows no correspondence whatsoever with the degree of religious belief. Secular people are just as likely (or not) to help someone in distress as are religious people. Interestingly, however, researchers have been able to show that a strong link between religiosity and prosocial behavior does emerge, but only when there is a self-reputation enhancing egoistic motivation: religious people are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior if they know that there is a good chance that their reputation in the group will be positively affected.

Perhaps one of the most interesting sets of experiments reported by Norenzayan and Shariff concerns what happens when people are reminded of a morally watchful authority — religious or secular. In a control group that was not “primed” with a god-like concept, people behaved selfishly (most pocketed an available sum of money without sharing). When participants were primed with a god reminder, however, the modal behavior switched to fairness (they split the money). So, does religion trigger altruistic behavior after all? Nope. Here’s the kicker: people that were primed with reminders of a secular moral authority were just as altruistic as the religiously primed ones! It isn’t religion, it is the presence of a moral authority that does the trick.

Another spectacular finding deals with the effect of religiosity on group survival. Researchers have mined historical information on hundreds of communes that were started in the United States during the 19th century, some religious, some secular (mostly of socialist inspiration). Once again, a prima facie interpretation of the data would seem to give credence to the idea that religion is good for sociality: at any given point in time, religious communes were four times as likely to survive to the following year as their secular counterparts. However, more in-depth analyses revealed that one needs to be weary before jumping to conclusions: it turns out that the real predictor of commune longevity was not religiosity, but the number of costly requirements for membership! The more costly it is to belong, the more likely members are to stick with it (that’s also why it’s better to subscribe to an expensive gym if you really want to motivate yourself…). The overall difference between religious and non-religious communes was simply due to the fact that the latter, on average, imposed much less costly requirements. (Note that “requirements” here does not just mean monetary ones, but also engaging in rituals, church attendance, constrained sexual practices, and so on. Still, perhaps atheist organizations should start asking their membership for a sizable percentage of their income, just as many fundamentalist denominations do.)

Finally, Norenzayan and Shariff looked into another interesting prediction that people have made about the relationship between religion and prosociality. According to standard theory, the two original sources of moral behavior are kin selection (you help your relatives because they carry some of your genes) and reciprocal altruism (where there is an expectation of favors being returned). The problem is that these two mechanisms begin to break down for groups that are much larger than about 150 individuals (all that our neocortex can keep track of). What then? The hypothesis here is that gods kick in as a supplementary and increasingly important moral lever. If so, then there should be a positive relationship between the size of a society and the moralizing of their gods. Sure enough, researchers found that although most societies do not, in fact, worship gods that dictate morality, all large groups switch to moral-dictating deities. Does that mean that religion is, after all, necessary for the stability of human groups? Again, no, because modern secular social contract-enforcing institutions (police, courts, etc.) efficiently replace the original function of “big gods,” as plainly demonstrated by the case of most western societies, which are both highly secular and stable.

Norenzayan and Shariff end with one further cautionary statement to people who insist that religion must be good for society, and a direct quote here is best: “Religious prosociality is not extended indiscriminately; the ‘dark side’ of within-group cooperation is between-group competition and conflict.” In this age of holy wars and cross-cultural clashes, it is indeed hard to underestimate the destructive power of religion.

Literature Cited

Jablonka, E. and M. J. Lamb (2005). Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.


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We know what the false prophets think; now what?

Posted in ScienceBlogs BookClub by Skepdude on October 10, 2008

On the last day of the Science Blogs Book Club discussion about Dr. Paul A. Offit’s recently published Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, I’ll start by quoting the last paragraph of the book:

The science is largely complete. Ten epidemiological studies have shown MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism; six have shown thimerosal doesn’t cause autism; three have shown thimerosal doesn’t cause subtle neurological problems; a growing body of evidence now points to the genes that are linked to autism; and despite the removal of thimerosal from vaccines in 2001, the number of children with autism continues to rise. Now it’s up to certain parent advocacy groups, through their public relations firms, lawyers, and celebrity spokespersons, to convince the public that all of these studies are wrong—and to convince them that the doctors who proffer their vast array of alternative medicines are the only ones who really care. (p. 247)Now that’s a laying down of the gauntlet. Those “certain parent advocacy groups” and their accompanying band of PR firms, lawyers, celebrity spokespersons, and the doctors who “proffer their vast array of alternative medicines” have their work cut out for them, if they mean to thoughtfully contest the claims of the numerous studies Dr. Offit cites.

But the problem is—-based on how the antivaccinationists have responded to the evidence so far—-they’re not going to respond to the science with science. Instead, expect full-page ads (like this one) in which there’s talk of not being “anti-vaccine” but “pro-vaccine-safety.” Expect a lot more moving of the goalposts as autism gets rebranded: So the link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism does not seem “so strong”—then it must be something else, like aluminum. In other words, don’t expect an actual discussion of the studies Dr. Offit cites but succinct slogans with just enough punch (“autism is treatable,” “green our vaccines”), criticisms of “conflicts of interest,” cries of the limitations of the data.


Measles not worth the risk

Posted in News by Skepdude on October 10, 2008

I’m in a hospital bed, gasping for breath. Through the clear plastic of an oxygen tent, I see my Mom. Her face is red and she’s crying and crying. I feel hot. Every few hours a nurse opens the oxygen tent and gives me a shot. It hurts.

It’s 1959. I’m in second grade. I’d caught the measles, just like my brothers and sisters and friends. Except unlike them, my measles didn’t go away. It got worse and turned into something I’d never heard of: pneumonia. I spent a month in the hospital, survived, and spent a few more months recovering at home. But more than four million children got measles in the United States in that year and 385 died.